So much has been said about Costa Rica since Christopher Columbus gave it its oh-so-fitting name back in 1502 that visitors are almost always surprised to find the place still un-trampled and lush, and even more colorful than in pictures. Despite a recent tourist boom to nearly two million visitors annually, Costa Rica remains relatively free of large crowds and long lines.
This tiny Central American nation with a scant human population (less than three million) is home to a whopping five percent of the world's biodiversity. Twenty-five percent of the country is protected within a national park or preserve, including hundreds of miles of coral reef and endangered eco-systems, such as the mangrove swamps of Manzanillo-Gandoca Wildlife Refuge. Four mountain ranges and seven microclimates are flanked by 1,500 kilometers of Pacific and Caribbean coastline, yet the country's only 120 kilometers wide at places.
Costa Rica is also one of the oldest democracies in Latin America, and the most peaceful, abolishing its army in 1948 in exchange for investment in education, and it's a success story to be admired. An inviting safe haven between Panama to the south and Nicaragua to the north, Costa Rica is a place with a rising economy in the midst of a global recession, making it an attractive place for investors, multi-national corporations, and retirees, not to mention soul-seekers, surfers, nature lovers and animal enthusiasts who inevitably fall in love with its myriad charms.
What to Do
Adventure seekers can zip-line through the jungle, whitewater raft down the Pacuare River, snorkel turquoise waters in Cahuita, surf lengendary waves in Puerto Viejo, and bask in hot springs under a slew of active volcanoes – and they can do it all in a long weekend.
Stretches of picture-perfect beaches may still be found deserted even on weekends, especially along the Caribbean coast and in more tucked-away areas like the Osa Penninsula and Drakes Bay. Plenty of Costa Rica's primary rainforest jungles are still untouched, and vibrant wildlife bursts from the trees. Howling monkeys, hundreds of species of exotic birds and infinite lizards animate the atmosphere, and neighborly encounters with slow-moving sloths are part of daily life outside the cities.
What to Eat
Costa Rica's seemingly boundless natural wonders, such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest and the Irazu Volcano may be the focus of many Costa Rican vacations, but it's the flavor of Costa Rica that steals the show for some: exotic fruit dripping from the trees, gourmet coffee grown and roasted, raw cacao, grass-fed beef and fresh fish from two oceans can all leave lasting impressions, and plenty of people dream of Costa Rica's edible blessings long after returning home.
Where to Stay
Some luxury resorts along the Pacific coast cater to the five-star crowd, but eco-lodges and family-run B&Bs are the most common types of accommodation in the rest of the country, followed by a blossoming sector of boutique hotels. Tourist prices are still below those of North America but much higher than elsewhere in Central America.
When to Go
Anytime of year, the weather in Costa Rica will be tropical and agreeable somewhere. The Caribbean side can be rainy all year long, and the Pacific side is typically more arid. Costa Rica's so-called "dry" season runs from December through April. The "green season" (April through November) sees fewer tourists and lower hotel rates. The entire country is on vacation for the weeks of Christmas and Easter (Semana Santa), and the beaches are packed with locals and tourists.